Well, I’m learning more about the tourist scams in Vietnam. It seems every country has a different way of ripping off tourists: in Thailand, it’s blithely upping the asking price, in Cambodia, it’s guilt-tripping. In Vietnam, it’s slipping extra items into the bill. And mysteriously changing the price, usually halfway through negotiations, or post facto.
I have to admit that I don’t think much of Hue; it’s another Asian city, with the standard set of Asian markets. Admittedly I’m kind of burned out on tourist attractions at the moment–Angkor Wat spoiled me for tombs and pagodas, and Tuol Sleng and the War Remnants Museum have pretty much covered the military stuff, so I’m not really interested in touring much. But my main experience of Hue has been the impressive array of tourist predators/scavengers, all of whom I seem to have met this morning. (This may in part account for my testy humor; my morning email accounts for the other half. Let’s not get started there.)
At any rate, this morning I got up, left my hotel, and went looking for a jacket. It’s actually quite cool here in Hue–maybe 60 or 70 degrees–and Hanoi is colder still. I’ve been going around in short sleeves regardless, but I’m planning to do some adventure trekking in Halong Bay (near Hanoi), so wanted a jacket.
So, I stopped by the corner shop, where I looked at a few jackets and finally settled on one marked 235,000 dong ($17). I asked the shopkeeper how much it was (to start bargaining), and she said 285,000. I (having read the price tag) walked off, whereupon she grabbed my arm, pulled out her calculator, looked at the price tag again, and entered 235,000 dong. (We finally settled on 195,000 dong.)
I would have taken this for an innocent mistake, but then I went back and checked out from my hotel, where they presented me with a bill for $38. I pointed out that my roommate for the first night had paid $10, whereupon they said, “Oh, right. Twenty-eight dollars.” Then they said, “Laundry, 48,000 dong.” I said, “What?!? It can’t possibly be that much,” whereupon they pulled out the receipt and said, “Oh, sorry, 29,000 dong.” That still seemed pretty high to me, but I looked at the itemization and paid it.
Then I went for a walk down the river, where a guy offered to shine my shoes (thoroughly dirty from a trip through Vinh Moc Tunnels). We argued over the price and arrived at 5,000 dong (ridiculous), but after he finished, he demanded 10,000 dong. (I refused to pay it.) And so on. The restaurant I went to for lunch wanted an extra 2,000 dong for providing a napkin. (I am not kidding.)
Mind you, not all vendors do this (I stopped by a very pleasant cafe that didn’t), but consider yourself warned: this is the scam in Vietnam. Write down the bill, and itemize absolutely everything–preferably in advance. And by all means scrutinize the bill; the odds of catching something are about 50-50.
All this is making me kind of worried about Hanoi–not my ability to handle it, but my temper. I really don’t enjoy fending off jackals and scavengers, and it will probably be worse in the city; so I may find a small town to hang out in, as it’s usually better in the countryside. (At least, there they get to know you. In Hoi An, after the first two days, the kids selling postcards, etc. left me alone, because they all remembered me.) I don’t think Vietnam is any better or worse than Cambodia–I’m just tired of it, that’s all. (Thailand is definitely better, though.)
I’m working on a piece about predator-prey relations vis-a-vis tourism; it’s been rather funny watching the hierarchy of predators. For example, we were accosted by a boat tout two days ago. He, having captured us, was escorting us to his boat to take a look, when a small cluster of urchins (definitely scavengers) came after us and started trying to sell us stuff, begging, etc. Upon noticing that they were distracting his rightful prey, the lord of the jungle cuffed one and spoke sharply to another, sending the little sparrows fleeing. Of course, as soon as he left us (having settled the deal) and moved on in search of other prey, the urchins descended again.
I spent a very amusing hour or so in a cafe this morning, watching the sparrows at work. I’ve decided that the best way to deal with a new city–assuming you have the time–is to spend one morning in a cafe watching the tourists go by; by the end of an hour or so, you’ll have a pretty good idea of (a) the different species and behavior patterns of hawkers, con men, etc., (b) the different tourist profiles, and (c) how to cope with the worst nuisances.
In Cambodia, the urchins are pretty much all child-beggars and postcard/drink salespeople. In Hoi An, they’re selling umbrellas, postcards, and little whistles.
In Vietnam, they add shoeshine kids (very persistent) to the mix, plus a set of ragged urchins who wander around with plastic sacks, waiting for tourists to leave soda cans on their tables, whereupon they nip over and snatch them before the cafe owners pick them up. (I think the cafe owners tolerate this, though they don’t necessarily like the kids.) I’m pretty sure that some at least of these kids are homeless; I ran across one peeing on the side of a busy street. Cleanliness is less of an issue in Asia than in the U.S., but it still made me blink. I wonder how they get along.
Moto and cyclo drivers here are also quite aggressive about soliciting, but unlike Cambodia it doesn’t come across as a sexual come-on: they are purely interested in your wallet. (Which is, believe me, a relief.) I’m getting better at passing for Vietnamese; the main reason they’re identifying me, I think, is becuase I’m wandering around in short sleeves and all the locals are wearing winter gear. It’s cold enough that even Westerners are (mostly) wearing long sleeves. If I didn’t have the world’s fastest metabolism, I probably would be, too.
(In fact during my walk, two or three old women stopped me on the street, pointed at my clothes, and gabbled something in Vietnamese which I *think* translated to “What are you doing out on the street like that? You’ll catch a cold! Go home and put on a jacket, for Heaven’s sake!” I was sort of amused, although not enough to actually put on a jacket.)
Cold is nice. It’s quite novel. I’m enjoying it. After two months of sweating, cold is fun. I actually had an urge to exercise today!, for the first time since I started this trip…it’s been too damn hot otherwise. I think when I go to Hanoi, I’m going to concentrate on adventure trekking–they have kayaking excursions, caving, etc. at Halong Bay, and I may see if they do bicycle tours.
After Hanoi, I’ll either go to Laos overland (if there’s a border crossing) and wind up in Luang Prabang, then go to Vientiane and back down into Thailand, or else fly from Hanoi to Vientiane, and make my way up to Luang Prabang, thence to Chiang Mai. Then I’ll spend two weeks volunteering on the Thai-Burmese border, and then fly to India. At least, that’s the plan.
Anyway, it’s time to run off; my bus is leaving soon, and I still need to buy food for the trip. While you will never starve on a bus trip in Asia (they stop every hour or so for toilet breaks, food, picking up passengers, etc.) it’s good to bring some food along–that way you won’t be forced to deal with extortionate vendors, if you don’t want to.
(Of course here the difference between extortionate and normal is about x5 in price–which is to say 30 cents rather than $.07–but it’s the principle of the thing. Besides, you can’t *guarantee* that the vendor at the particular stop is going to be selling Oreos, not dried chicken heads or pig entrails, so it helps to be sure.)